The Real Facts of Food Waste

March 31, 2021

By Tamanna Mohapatra

The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke once said; “Facts are to the mind what food is to the body”. Essential. Let us, therefore, begin with some essential facts.  Beware, these facts may kill your appetite. 

Worldwide, up to 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted globally each year, almost 1/3rd of the 3 billion produced. This is edible food that goes uneaten, primarily driven by actions and decisions made by retailers, food service providers, and consumers. 

The figure for the USA is 80 billion pounds/year which translates to roughly 36 million tons/year, making it the food waste leader in North America. An individual citizen’s share of that is about 400 pounds/year, a little over a pound a day. 

Per REFED, “If all of our country’s wasted food was grown in one place, this mega-farm would cover over three-quarters of the state of California. This wasteful farm would consume all the water used in California, Texas, and Ohio combined. And then, instead of being purchased, prepared, and eaten, after traveling thousands of miles in cold refrigerators to grocery stores, this perfectly good food would be loaded onto another line of trucks and hauled to a landfill, where it would emit harmful greenhouse gases as it decomposes.”

Now that we know the facts and are suitably appalled, what can we do about it? Turns out, quite a bit!

As we now know; a big part of the food wasted is at the consumer level. According to the Braunschweig Institute, most food waste is generated in private households; sometimes in the form of uncooked food that goes from the market to the refrigerator and then into the trash bin, often in the form of unused leftovers. 

Consumer food waste is “a rich country dilemma,” said John Mandyck, co-author of the book Food Foolish: The Hidden Connection Between Food Waste, Hunger, and Climate Change. He believes this is because food is relatively inexpensive in the United States. He sees consumer education as a solution, creating awareness of the scale and consequences of what happens when we throw away food. 

With that solution in mind, meet Jacquelyn Ottman, a known figure in NYC’s sustainability circles. She is a food waste advocate and former president of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board. 

Last spring when the pandemic reached NYC, Jacquelyn and her friend Karen were literally sheltering in Shelter Island, a perfect place to find oneself during a pandemic. Being on an island meant they didn’t have constant access to food. Being in a pandemic meant they couldn’t go out food shopping that often.  

So they honed their cooking skills. They created delicious, nutritious meals, learning to truly appreciate life through food. They also learned to deeply appreciate the value of food.  Jacquelyn spent a good part of quarantine learning valuable lessons in reducing food waste, cooking with leftovers. A byproduct of her culinary adventures is a very “coffee table friendly” book titled, ‘CONNECTING FROM A QUARANTINE KITCHEN’. 

So what lessons in food waste management can we learn from Jacquelyn and her quarantine kitchen, especially regarding leftovers? She covers quite a few tips to reduce food waste at the consumer level. Here are some of our favorites.

Plan Ahead for Leftovers. Make leftovers intentional. This will save time in preparing a future meal and also make sure the original meal ‘cascades’ through the week. 

Store Leftovers properly. Properly wrapped and labeled, leftovers stored in the freezer will stay “fresh” for weeks or even months. About two-thirds of food waste at home comes from food not being used before it goes bad. Food spoilage at home occurs due to improper storage, lack of visibility in refrigerators, partially used ingredients, and misjudged food needs. 

Learn New Recipes for Transforming Leftovers. The possibilities for transforming leftovers into entirely new meals are endless! Jacquelyn introduces us to the Leftovers Matrix: frittatas, omelets, savory cakes, grain bowls, fried rice, curries. Using basic staples from around the world, it’s possible to take your leftovers on a magic carpet ride through culinary history, as you savor international cuisines. 

There are plenty more tips, strategies, and fun musings that Jaquelyn has very graciously made available to us through this PDF titled “Eat Well, Waste Nothing. Lessons Learned in a Pandemic Kitchen.” You can purchase the full book, which has 200+ gorgeous food pictures here. To learn more about this very urgent matter, another good place to start would be with NRDC’s Food matters portal. 

Jacquelyn’s quarantine kitchen stories remind us that creative cookery goes well beyond just preparation.  She shows us that every morsel is precious and that waste is not just unnecessary, it’s irresponsible. Even better, with just a bit of attention and ingenuity, reducing food waste adds an essential ingredient to the joy of cooking. 

As Jacquelyn states, “I’m sharing my pandemic cooking story here, with the goal of inspiring other home cooks to transform their leftovers. Now, won’t you please share yours? What favorite leftovers hack can you share? I want to know. The world needs to know, too.” 

Indeed, we need to show our love for ourselves, our food, and our world by cooking better and sharing our successes and our trials. Please share your food waste hacks with us at [email protected].

Interested in preparing for a Green Career? Check out our upcoming April Green Careers event.